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Papa and Redding

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[1941-2] When I was in my last year of junior high, America went to war. Lenora had a filing job for a dentist, and Selma was taking care of Corine. Jean was in high school and Tak was a loud four-year-old. Earle was afraid he’d be drafted, even with his family, so he sent Selma and Corine to live with us again and enlisted. He wanted to have some choice about his service, he explained.
Papa supported his decision, I think. I never heard otherwise. Edith’s mama was getting some welfare money, so we were able to pay the bills most of the time. Papa was the only man in our house, and he was not likely to be drafted. When the age was lowered to seventeen, most of Jean’s high school class disappeared. She cried over the boys she liked. They didn’t have school dances anymore because none of the girls had dates.
Papa’s family didn’t keep him safe from recruiters. A man came to our apartment one evening and asked Papa if he’d registered according to the law. Papa said he’d done everything he’d been told to do, but that his family and his hands kept him out of the service. He was completely deaf in his left ear, too.
The recruiter, who wore an army uniform with the name Redding on the pocket, said it was Papa’s patriotic duty. I was proud of Papa; he was using his work accent, and he didn’t look like an immigrant. Papa argued that his duty was to his family just as much as his country; Redding said that he had left his family behind in Oregon to serve the United States of America and that Papa had no excuse. Women were getting more jobs all the time, Redding said, and Mama and Lenora and Selma and Edith’s mama could take care of the family.
Papa unwrapped his hands and put them down, side by side, on the kitchen table. “I will serve my country best at home.”
Redding looked at all of us with suspicion and pressed down on Papa’s fingers. “I’ve seen tricks like this before.” But the harder he pressed, the whiter Papa’s face got, until he took his hands off the table and went outside and threw up in the alley.
Redding heard him. He told Mama that his papers said Papa was thirty-nine, and that was still young enough to be drafted.
Then he turned to Lenora and wanted to know if she planned to become a nurse, since they were letting women volunteer. She told Redding that if he didn’t keep sending men to get shot up, they wouldn’t need nurses to patch them back together.
After Redding left, I felt guilty. It was one of the few times in my life that I didn’t have any idea what to think. I guessed it was part of Redding’s work to make you feel shame if you didn’t join.
Lenora said she was going for a walk, and when Papa came back inside, he sat down at the table and I wrapped his hands.
He and I stayed up late, waiting for Lenora to come back. I sat next to him at the table. After he drank some water, he asked me about school, if there were any boys I liked: small talk.
There might have been a great war being fought in Europe, people dying, but in our apartment that night, there was only Papa and me.





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